Saturday, January 12, 2019

An Alien in Meshech

Woe is me, that I am an alien in Meshech, that I must live among the tents of Kedar.
Too long have I had my dwelling among those who hate peace.
I am for peace; but when I speak, they are for war.
Ps. 120:5-7 

Psalm 120 is not an uplifting psalm, but it is moving. Mainline Protestants who are overly dependent on the lectionary might never encounter it, however, since it is never used in the Revised Common Lectionary.

The most meaningful words of this psalm to me are found in verses 5-7. And when I study it more closely in the original language, I discover that the two English verbs live in verse 5 and have... dwelling in verse 6 should probably not have been translated as two different verbs, because they're the same word in Hebrew.

It's a wonderful word, actually, and live seems to me far too mundane for its English translation (dwell perhaps a bit better). The verb שָׁכַן uses the same root as the Hebrew word we translate as tabernacle (tent of meeting), and so in a literal sense, I might read ...I must tabernacle among the tents of Kedar (v. 5) and too long have I tabernacled among those who hate peace (v. 6). This is not God speaking, obviously—but I could almost picture God complaining about having chosen to dwell among such a violent people.

Calvin says that it must be admitted that the psalmist here "expresses the irksomeness of an uncomfortable and an annoying place of residence." And he seems to think that verses 5-6 are figurative, and that the psalmist is, indeed, tabernacling among their own people—even though their own people have no desire to live in peace. And I suppose it really would be irksome, to use Calvin's words, to find oneself in the uncomfortable and annoying situation of feeling like a stranger among one's own people.

I believe that Americans who would welcome refugees and who find this country's attachment to firearms repugnant might certainly pray this psalm with integrity. So successful has the assault on the soul of our nation been, that we now accept without complaint a government which turns its back on foreigners seeking asylum; and so commonplace are mass shootings carried out by angry white men that most are no even longer headline news.

Psalm 120 ends ambiguously. We leave the psalmist here, an alien in Meshech. But we need not leave ourselves stranded. The scriptures speak of transformation. The end of one story allows for the beginning of another. The boulder at the entrance to the tomb in one account has inexplicably been rolled away in the next. Where the people of God dwell, God's tabernacle is still in their midst. And where God is, change is not just possible, it is a certainty.

Thank you, Holy One, that you dwell in the midst of the church, wherever it finds itself. Transform your people from nobodies into the body of your Son. And empower us to be his body in the world, doing his deeds, speaking his words, embracing with his arms. Though all the world be for war, give us courage to advocate for the Prince of Peace, in whose Name we pray as he taught us...
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